Walter Soboleff
Walter Alexander Soboleff (November 14, 1908 - May 22, 2011) was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 Tlingit scholar, elder and religious leader. Soboleff was the first Native Alaskan to become an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Early life

Soboleff was born in Killisnoo, Alaska
Killisnoo, Alaska
Killisnoo is an unincorporated community on Killisnoo Island in the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area in the U.S. state of Alaska, near Angoon which is on Admiralty Island. Killisnoo is located at .-History:...

, on November 14, 1908, to a Tlingit
The Tlingit are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of America. Their name for themselves is Lingít, meaning "People of the Tides"...

 mother and a Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

n father. Soboleff was born into the Tlingit clan Kha'jaq'tii, meaning One Slain in Battle. His mother, Anna Hunter, who had been orphaned in nearby Sitka, had canoed to Killisnoo with her brother to stay with their aunt. His father, Alexander "Sasha" Soboleff, resided in Killisnoo with his parents and three brothers. Walter Soboleff's paternal grandfather, was a Russian Orthodox minister named Ivan Soboleff, who moved to Killisnoo from San Francisco during the 1890s. His father, Alexander, died when Walter was twelve years old and his mother remarried.

He was raised in Tenakee, Alaska
Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area. It is situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait...

. He first attended a U.S. Government School in Tenakee before enrolling at the Sheldon Jackson School
Sheldon Jackson College
Sheldon Jackson College was a small private college located on Baranof Island in Sitka, Alaska, United States. Founded in 1878, it was the oldest institution of higher learning in Alaska and maintained a historic relationship with the Presbyterian Church. The college was named in honor of Rev...

 boarding school
Boarding school
A boarding school is a school where some or all pupils study and live during the school year with their fellow students and possibly teachers and/or administrators. The word 'boarding' is used in the sense of "bed and board," i.e., lodging and meals...

 in Sitka when he was five years old. He began working as a Tlingit language
Tlingit language
The Tlingit language ) is spoken by the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and Western Canada. It is a branch of the Na-Dené language family. Tlingit is very endangered, with fewer than 140 native speakers still living, all of whom are bilingual or near-bilingual in English...

 interpreter for doctors at ten years old during the height of the 1918 flu pandemic in Southeast Alaska.

Soboleff was hired for his first job at the Hood Bay fish cannery when he was a freshman at Sheldon Jackson High School in 1925. He earned 25 cents an hour at the cannery.

In 1925, Soboleff sailed from Sitka to Seattle aboard the Admiral Lines steamship. He then hitchhiked
Hitchhiking is a means of transportation that is gained by asking people, usually strangers, for a ride in their automobile or other road vehicle to travel a distance that may either be short or long...

 from Seattle to enroll at college at Oregon Agricultural College, which is now known by its present-day name, Oregon State University
Oregon State University
Oregon State University is a coeducational, public research university located in Corvallis, Oregon, United States. The university offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees and a multitude of research opportunities. There are more than 200 academic degree programs offered through the...

. However, he was only able to stay at Oregon Agricultural College for one semester due to the financial pressures of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

. He hitchhiked back to Seattle, where he stayed at a YMCA in the city until he could return to his studies.

Soboleff won a scholarship
A scholarship is an award of financial aid for a student to further education. Scholarships are awarded on various criteria usually reflecting the values and purposes of the donor or founder of the award.-Types:...

 to the University of Dubuque
University of Dubuque
The University of Dubuque is a Presbyterian university located in Dubuque, Iowa, with a general attendance of approximately 1,600 students. The school offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. It is one of three four-year post-secondary institutions in the City of Dubuque, and is...

 in 1933. He completed a bachelor's degree
Bachelor's degree
A bachelor's degree is usually an academic degree awarded for an undergraduate course or major that generally lasts for three or four years, but can range anywhere from two to six years depending on the region of the world...

 at the University of Dubuque in 1937 in education. Soboleff went on to earn a master's degree
Master's degree
A master's is an academic degree granted to individuals who have undergone study demonstrating a mastery or high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice...

 in divinity
Divinity and divine are broadly applied but loosely defined terms, used variously within different faiths and belief systems — and even by different individuals within a given faith — to refer to some transcendent or transcendental power or deity, or its attributes or manifestations in...

, also from the University of Dubuque, in 1940.

Soboleff returned to Sitka, Alaska, during the summer of 1940, where he initially worked in cold storage
Cold storage
Cold storage may refer to:* A form of refrigerated storage* Cold Storage, a musician also known as Tim Wright * Cold Storage , a supermarket found in Singapore and Malaysia* COLD...

 or seine fishing. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and married his wife, Genevieve Ross, a Haida
The Haida are an indigenous nation of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Haida territories lie in both Canada and the United States, as do those of the Tlingit and Tsimshian. The Haida territories comprise the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia...

 woman and nurse who was involved in the revival of the Haida language
Haida language
The Haida language is the language of the Haida people. It contains seven vowels and well over 30 consonants.-History:The first documented contact between the Haida and Europeans was in 1774, on Juan Pérez's exploratory voyage. At this time Haidas inhabited the Queen Charlotte Islands, Dall...

 in Alaska. Walter and Genevieve had four children - Janet, Sasha, Walter Jr. and Ross.

Ministry and activism

Soboleff moved to Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
The City and Borough of Juneau is a unified municipality located on the Gastineau Channel in the panhandle of the U.S. state of Alaska. It has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, when the government of the then-District of Alaska was moved from Sitka as dictated by the U.S. Congress in 1900...

, where he served as a minister at Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1940, a then-predominantly Tlingit church which grew to include members from other ethnic groups. He also began broadcasting radio news
News is the communication of selected information on current events which is presented by print, broadcast, Internet, or word of mouth to a third party or mass audience.- Etymology :...

 in the Tlingit language.

Soboleff travelled to remote Alaskan settlements, fishing villages, and even lighthouses as needed by the Presbyterian ministry. He also became a Tlingit and Native Alaskan advocate for cultural education, human rights and rights of indigenous people in Alaska.

Walter Soboleff died at his home in Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
The City and Borough of Juneau is a unified municipality located on the Gastineau Channel in the panhandle of the U.S. state of Alaska. It has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, when the government of the then-District of Alaska was moved from Sitka as dictated by the U.S. Congress in 1900...

, on May 22, 2011, at the age of 102, of complications from bone cancer and prostate cancer. His first wife, Genevieve, died in January 1986. He married his second wife, Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson, in 1999. Atkinson died in April 2008.

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell
Sean Parnell
Sean R. Parnell is an American Republican politician who is the tenth and current Governor of Alaska. He succeeded Sarah Palin following her resignation, and was sworn in at the Governor's Picnic in Fairbanks on July 26, 2009...

 ordered that all state flags be lowered to half staff in Soboleff's honor. Hundreds of people, including Governor Parnell, attended Soboleff's memorial service at Centennial Hall in Juneau. The service was broadcast live on television throughout the state of Alaska.

In May 2011, it was announced that the Sealaska Heritage Institute Cultural Center, which is scheduled to be constructed in downtown Juneau, will be named for Walter Soboleff.
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